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Posts Tagged ‘Kosovo’

The lack of direct flights to Montenegro had deterred me from visiting until I saw ‘Gateway City: Dubrovnik’ as a chapter of the Lonely Planet Montenegro guide – I could fly there, hire a car and cross the border in no time; I could even use my BA miles!  Then in the weeks before I left I had a bad feeling about the trip. There had been a lack of clarity from Avis about taking the car out of Croatia so I had visions of being stuck at the airport and since booking the hotel on the basis of one Tripadvisor rave review, a number of very negative ones had turned up……….well, in the end it turned out more than OK; it was a lovely trip.

 

Not only was there no problem taking the car into Montenegro, but they had the requested automatic and a brand new white Smart 2-seater nonetheless which I became rather fond of. The hotel proved to be excellently situated mid-way between the two nicest towns on Kotor Bay, Perast and Kotor, and very good value-for-money – I’d have paid £30 for the view from my balcony, but they threw in a large suite, free Internet access and breakfast. I was so bowled over by the view that I didn’t go anywhere on the afternoon I arrived; I just sat there looking at it, glass of wine in hand.

 

Montenegro is my seventh and final FYRO; a small mountainous country of less than 1m people bordering Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia.  It was the last to declare independence by divorcing Serbia in 2006 and managed to do so without much protest; maybe Serbia was pre-occupied with Kosovo at the time, or maybe it was too small to bother. Given one of the consequences is that Serbia becomes land-locked, I’d have expected a fight.

Just south of the border with Croatia, a small inlet on the Adriatic coast leads to a bay and another inlet from this bay to another bay called the Bay of Kotor. If this was the rich Faroe Islands, there’d be a tunnel or bridges, but its not so the two narrow straights mean a ferry or 100 km+ drive. Steep rocky mountains fall into the water and the road hugs the waterside, going through or bypassing lots of small villages as it circuits the whole bay. The mountains are often reflected in the water that seems much more than a lake than the sea. It’s idyllic.

 

The first full day was spent driving the half of Kotor Bay I hadn’t driven to get to my hotel the day before. Perast was the first stop; it’s a delightful sleepy one-street town along the waterfront with two monastery islands off shore. Kotor followed, a walled town at the foot of the mountain on which the wall continues much higher to and from a fortress. Both are great to explore on foot and very different but with the same Venetian feel of much of Croatia. After this I headed to the Adriatic coast to take a look at the unfeasibly beautiful walled private island of Sveti Stefan, currently being reconstructed as a hotel, and Budva – a dreadful over-developed resort town but with a terrific walled old town with a citadel.

 

Day Two started with an extraordinary drive on a single-track road – ‘the back road’ – with more hairpin bends than I’ve ever encountered, 5000 feet up to the Lovcen National Park. The coastal views were spectacular and the autumnal colours simply beautiful. I climbed the 417 steps the mausoleum of a national hero-poet (yes, POET!), which despite a lovely sculpture wasn’t worth the panting on its own – but the views were even better, so I didn’t regret it. I ended the day in the old royal capital of Cetjine, which was a delightful sleepy and very moochable town.

 

Sunday started in somewhat surreal fashion with the only other guests having a conference in Italian and English about a chocolate manufacturing process over breakfast. Then as soon as I was on the road I found myself at the tail end of a convoy led by a car with a giant flag hanging out of the window and hazard lights flashing. I haven’t got a clue what it was about but I accepted the waves and blown kisses from onlookers as if I did. It turned a bit scary when we entered a tunnel and someone fired five shots from the window of one of the cars. I hung back and had lost them within a couple of miles. 

 

The usually reliable Lonely Planet sent me on a 2.5-hour detour to Ulcinj close to the border with Albania – one of their 15 highlights of Montenegro ‘A vibrant slice of Albanian culture beneath a cluster of minarets’. Well it was a premiere league dump! Fortunately, the day picked up significantly with a visit to Lake Skadar National Park and another extraordinary drive with more stunning views – of lakes, rivers and mountains this time, with the autumn colours more yellow and orange contrasting with yesterday’s reds and browns as it was lower and further south. The riverside village of Rijeka Crnojevica was a lovely spot to stop and take in the beauty of it all.

 

Just when I was wishing I was staying for a few days more, torrential rain arrived on the final morning to make me feel OK about going home. This really was a beautifully scenic country. The roads were dreadful and the standard of driving worse (they really don’t see the point of being able to see the road ahead when they overtake!) but I still loved the journeys. The food was good and the wine drinkable.

I’ve enjoyed all bar one of these FYRO’s (Serbia is the exception) but now I’ve visited them all and experienced their difference, it is so obvious that the break-up of Yugoslavia was inevitable.

There are an awful lot of photos for such a short trip, which tells you something about its beauty. Here they are…..
 

 
You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: Montenegro 2010
Montenegro 2010
Dec 31, 2001
by Gareth
To share your photos or receive notification when your friends share photos, get your own free Picasa Web Albums account.

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Another month, another FYR…..

You’re probably thinking I’ve lost my marbles; I can almost hear the cries ‘Kosovo?! Is this a holiday?’ Well, travel for me is about learning and experiences and it certainly qualifies on that count – a very different experience altogether than Macedonia last month, more recent history than ancient history, but fascinating nonetheless.

The distrust and ethnic hatred which Milosevic fuelled (or maybe re-ignited) when Yugoslavia lost Tito will take decades (if ever) to heal and here you witness it much more than any of the other FYR’s. There is currently a sort of peace with the UN’s KFOR ever present. It’s an excellent example of the good the international community can do when it sets its mind to it. We encountered Swedish, Italian, Austrian, German, Portuguese, Romanian and Swiss soldiers and, as if to illustrate the different directions these FYR’s have taken, there were Slovenian troops keeping the peace on behalf of the UN.

It’s a small country of 2m people, 90% of which are ethnic Albanians, and we saw a lot of it in our 5-day circular tour of this poppy strewn green land surrounded by snow-capped mountains. We started in the capital Pristina, a dump if ever I saw one. We stayed in the Grand Hotel, which wasn’t – once the pride of Yugoslavia with 350 rooms, now with 20 or so guests and a lot of floors disused unfurnished wastelands.

A combination of 1999 war damage, pre-war communist tastelessness and post-1999 out-of-control development, Pristina has few redeeming features. There’s little left of the old Ottoman town, except a mosque still being rebuilt, baths in ruins and a lovely ethnographic museum housed in some charming old buildings. In the national museum, they defiantly display the one item (of 1247) ‘loaned’ to Serbia just before the 1999 war that has been returned (the remainder are pawns in a post-war political game), but they’ve made a good job of displaying what’s left.

Out of town, we visited the Gracanica Monastery where the Swedish UN soldiers guarding it were very helpful but had little idea what they were guarding. The Byzantine church, an important place for Serbian Orthodox Christians, is now considered a potential target of Kosovan Albanians in this troubled land. At the memorial to a 14th century battle, which the then Serbian empire lost, they have the same concerns, but here the UN have handed over security to the Kosovan police. Here we met a charming Austrian UN officer who was orientating his men to their new posting. Nearby, the tomb of the Ottoman leader killed in the battle has been cared for by the same family for generations, even though the body is no longer there!

We moved on, via the extensive caves at Gadime and the Sharrit mountains, to our second overnight stop in Prizren, a lovely riverside town with a fortress towering over it, which was once the centre of the late 19th League of Prizren, a defensive organisation seeking to prevent the occupation of the ethnic Albanian territories from the Adriatic coat to the land of the Serbs.  There aren’t many countries where you’re thanked for your country’s contribution, but we were moved when the custodian here did so. The Ottoman baths were still being renovated but had more atmosphere as a result and there was a lovely stone bridge leading to the old town.

From here we visited the wine country of Rahovec and the newly privatised Stone Castle Winery where the scale was extraordinary and the quality surprisingly good, though they are aiming for popular merlots, cab savs and chardonnays. In contrast, in a small Serbian village enclave, we tasted more distinctive wines made from indigenous Balkan specific grape varieties. This was where I began to understand that there are many personal tragedies on both sides resulting from the political situation. The wine maker was a Serb doctor who didn’t feel able to continue to practice here in newly independent Albanian Kosovo and had to export all of his wine to Belgrade. At another village en route to our next destination, the fields were full of Kosovan Albanian women working – none of their men folk had survived the war.

Our next overnighter was Gjakova, another nice place though this time the old town was largely rebuilt, having been razed to the ground in 1999. Our hotel was a beacon for the new Kosovo, rebuilt externally with historical accuracy but with a new designer chic interior. Gjakova also had a lovely ethnographic museum in an old Ottoman house where we were being photographed, we think for the local paper (they don’t see many tourists in these parts). In the old town, we visited the Bektashi community, one of a number of Islamic sects; these are liberal Shiites who consider women as equal, drink alcohol and display images of the prophet. I was wondering why no-one had issued a fatwa against them! Double standards indeed.

From here we headed to what turned out to be the high spot of the trip – the Decani monastery – a 14th century combination of a stunning Romanesque church decorated inside with wonderful Byzantine frescos, a hugely important site to the Serbian Orthodox Church (they call it ‘our Jerusalem’ to drive the point home). The monk whom we met was charming, dignified and funny as he told us they had been attacked 28 times, the last just 2 years ago. Yet, just before we arrived he received a Kosovan Muslim couple with a sick child to pray to St Stephen. We saw them leave, the child receiving sweets and cakes from the Italian UN soldier on guard (in shades with designer stubble!). This was deeply moving but somehow hopeful.

Before our final overnight stop we took in a village that had a couple of intact Ottoman Kulla houses, the spectacular Rugova river gorge and the characterless city of Peja whose only claim to fame is that they have re-named a major thoroughfare Tony Blair Street in gratitude for his contribution to the NATO and UN decisions that led to their liberation (Bill Clinton got a street AND a gold (coloured) statue in Pristina!)

At our final stop, Istog, we stayed in a quirky hotel at a fish farm. I loved my little bungalow hanging over the lake and the dinner of fish cooked six ways was terrific. From here we visited the village where the family of the KLA leader were massacred. The memorial they are building will be bigger than the village. Four coachfulls of schoolchildren arrived and sang us a Kosovan hymn. We were introduced to the KLA leader’s son who was in Germany at the time and is now head of the family. When we were at the graves, one of he Kosovan soldiers guarding them photographed us; surreal!

Our final stop was Mitrovica, where the city has been divided on ethnic lines and it remains a flashpoint. You can now cross the bridge freely, but few people do.  When I went too far, to see the Serb war memorial, our Kosovan Albanian host called me back. The UN troops have rather charmingly built a walkway so that young people can cross half way then step down to the riverside to meet. A UN official approached us to ask what on earth we were doing there – she’d never seen a tourist in Mitrovica whilst she’d been there.

This was an extraordinarily fascinating trip. As this was my sixth visit to the former Yugoslavia in recent years, I thought I fully understood its history, but this trip deepened my understanding and highlighted the complexity of the situation. It was often deeply moving but ultimately hopeful. In particular, I will never forget the visit to Decani as long as I live. The food was excellent and the wine very drinkable. The small group of 15 proved good company, so as well as learning we did have fun! The next few trips will be Northern Europe, so that’s the last FYR for now.

Here are some photos……..

 
You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: Kosovo 2010
Kosovo 2010
Jun 9, 2010
by Gareth
To share your photos or receive notification when your friends share photos, get your own free Picasa Web Albums account.
 

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